Blog > Career Paths

The Role of the Set Piece Analyst

The Role of the Set Piece Analyst

In professional football, the manager or head coach assumes a huge amount of responsibility for whether a team wins or loses. Club boards are far less patient than they once were, and when things go wrong, it's usually the manager's head that ends up on the chopping block. However, one thing that has changed in recent years is that the team surrounding the head coach has expanded significantly; nowadays, the person in charge can gain from the expert opinions of a variety of different analysts, scouts, tacticians and training ground gurus.

In this article, we'll be guiding you through the details of a specific role that has been developed to take advantage of this increased scope for specialist coaching in football: the set piece analyst. We'll dive into the changing role of analysts in football, the benefits of having a set piece analyst on board, and the specific jobs that a set piece analyst will typically be tasked with. To kick things off, though, we're going to explore exactly what a set piece is and why set pieces are so important in professional football.

What Is A Set Piece?

In soccer, a set piece is any action that occurs when the ball goes out of play and the game is restarted. Different types of set piece in football include throw ins, corners, goal kicks, indirect free kicks, direct free kicks, and penalties.

And each set piece serves a specific function, from punishing a player/team for committing a foul, to rewarding a team for positive offensive play (for example, when a shot on goal is saved by the goalkeeper and a corner is awarded to the attacking team).

On a basic level, set pieces are about re-entering the ball into open play, but in reality they can be far more complex and important than just that. Most teams follow certain guidelines to ensure that they are as successful as possible both offensively and defensively from set pieces, with organised marking, clever movement and passing structures and routines that have been worked on at the training ground.

And at the top level, the importance of set pieces has become abundantly clear in the last few years. According to NACSport, since the 2018 World Cup over 30% of goals each season have been scored from set pieces. A key factor in this development is the growing presence of analysts in the professional game.

The Changing Role Of Analysts In Football

Back in the day, the vast majority of first team planning, match preparation and training ground work would be handled by the manager and their small group of assistant coaches. However, in the modern era a large amount of this work is now outsourced to other specialists within the club set up, from data analysts to goalkeeping experts and, of course, set piece analysts. 

"Nowadays, the analysis department is just an extension of the coaching team," said experienced Premier League analyst Jonathan Hill in an interview with us last year. "It's such a synchronised, joined-up process. The volume of games that teams play, you just can't do the level of coaching and get your messaging across the way you'd want to on the training pitch because of the physical restraints that players have. Analysis meetings are where you get all your detail across, and the level of tactics, detail and preparation that goes into trying to win a game is huge… it's pretty close to being the most influential department at a football club."

The increased value placed on analysis in football is also underlined by the enhanced development path for analysts in the game, which is something that has changed rapidly. "Analysts quickly move into being Head of Recruitment or Sporting Director, because they've had such great exposure to working with people, understanding the game, understanding players' performance," adds Jonathan Hill.

The Rise Of The Set Piece Analyst

Analysts can come in many different forms. There are data analysts like Liam Henshaw who place plenty of focus on examining numbers and figures to gain insights about the pros and cons of individual player performances, as well as team performances. There are analysts who may focus more on the defensive side of play, while others might analyse the attacking proficiency of a given team, identifying strengths and weaknesses. And then there are set pieces analysts, who must employ all those skills in order to help teams become as effective as possible at defending and attacking from corners, throw ins and free kicks.

Speaking to The Athletic, former Brentford set piece analyst and coach Andreas Georgson said of the job: "You have to see it as a long-term project. A big part of the job is not getting desperate, and accepting that, over time, we will improve. If you're a specialist, then it's easy to think, "I need more time in my specialist area". But I don't think that's the way to think of specialists in football — the process has to be holistic, synchronised."

We've heard those words — synchronisation, integration — a lot when it comes to the way set piece coaching slots into professional club set ups. But in terms of the specific day-to-day tasks and duties that occupy them, what is it that set piece analysts do?

Inside The Role: What Does A Set Piece Analyst Do?

The role of a set piece analyst is multi-faceted. First of all, it's worth noting that while there is a huge amount of crossover between set piece analysis and set piece coaching, these are two distinct roles; coaches will spend more time working with players on the training ground, while analysts will spend more time watching footage and completing research to ensure that coaches are given everything they need to rehearse effective set piece routines out on the grass.

In terms of what a set piece analyst does each day, a big part of the job is the study of data and video footage relating to set pieces. Analysts will identify the key strengths and weaknesses of their team, working out what can be done to increase the chances of scoring from set pieces while also looking at how the team's defensive structures can be tightened when the opposition has a set piece.

In order to help coaches prepare for a match, set piece analysts will examine footage and data relating to their opponent's set piece performance, figuring out the weaknesses that could be exploited in that match; for example, is a team weaker at the front post or the back post when defending corners, do they defend zonally or man-to-man, and which markers might be less solid and therefore liable to make a mistake if targeted physically on a corner or free kick?

Through this work, the best set piece analysts will also be able to detect trends in the way their team and others are performing, and as a result they may be able to kickstart new, forward-thinking tactical innovations. 

Set piece analysts need to be able to compile all the information, data and video footage they work with into neat packages, creating reports for the coaching staff and players and crucially, communicating this information in an effective and simple way. Constructive feedback is crucial, and different software, technology and data visualisations can be used to enhance this feedback offering, so analysts need to be confident using this technology. According to Liam Henshaw, "Communication is key. It's important being able to communicate in "football language", to keep things nice and simple through video presentations and data packs presented to the coaches… to put that in context in easy-to-digest terms."

The Impact Of Having A Set Piece Analyst

Being effective from set pieces can have a huge impact on team performance and final league standings. During the 2023/24 season, 237 goals were scored from set pieces, with Arsenal the league's most productive team (with 20 goals from set pieces). Given the financial rewards on offer for teams finishing high in the Premier League (European football is extremely lucrative while each individual position is worth an additional £1m or so), it makes practical and economic sense for teams to hire set pieces coaches to ensure they are squeezing every bit of potential out of this side of the game.

The recent move of renowned set piece expert Bernardo Cueva from Brentford to Chelsea for a rumoured £1m is a great example of the efforts clubs are going to to make sure their set piece play is as advanced as possible.

One key tactical development that has emerged as a result of the greater presence of set piece analysts in football is the rise of the long throw-in. Analysts and coaches have identified that teams can generate greater Expected Goals (xG) by using throw-ins in the final third as a chance to direct aggressive, looping balls into the opposition penalty area.

In the Premier League, Brentford in particular have been extremely adept when it comes to creating dangerous chances from this source; during the 2021/22 PL campaign, Thomas Frank's side averaged 0.09 xG per 90 from throw ins, whilst every other team in the league combined managed just 0.12 xG, showing that the Bees' targeting of throws has brought serious rewards. This is the kind of impactful tactical tweak that set piece analysts can help bring to the game.

If you're inspired by the idea of sparking these kind of powerful tactical changes in a professional football environment, a career as an analyst could be perfect for you. In the next section of this article, we'll focus on offering a few useful bits of advice to people looking to get into this side of the football industry.

Starting Out As A Football Analyst

There are a number of things that budding young analysts can do to make themselves stand out in this highly competitive field. According to Jonathan Hill, it's all about being self-reliant. "Try and be proactive with doing your own analysis, and try and showcase your own bits of work to really enable employers to see what you're capable of. In terms of trying to make your CV stand out, attach these projects, attach these bits sof work, and sell the things that you've done. Put some detail in, not just "I worked for club X"." For Liam Henshaw, having a strong presence on social media is absolutely crucial, and developing communication skills is another important area that should not be underestimated.

Check out our full Q&A with Jonathan Hill for more information on the role of an analyst in football.